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The Corpse at the Iron Gate

Buenos Aires, April-June 1972

Outline it like a story by Borges.

The dictator is overthrown and more than half the people rejoice. The dictator had filled the jails and emptied the treasury. Like many dictators, he hadn’t begun badly. He had wanted to make his country great. But he wasn’t himself a great man; and perhaps the country couldn’t be made great. Seventeen years pass. The country is still without great men; the treasury is still empty; and the people are on the verge of despair. They begin to remember that the dictator had a vision of the country’s greatness, and that he was a strong man; they begin to remember that he had given much to the poor. The dictator is in exile. The people begin to agitate for his return. The dictator is now very old. But the people also remember the dictator’s wife. She loved the poor and hated the rich, and she was young and beautiful. So she has remained, because she died young, in the middle of the dictatorship. And, miraculously, her body has not decomposed.

That,” Borges said, “is a story I could never write.”

But at seventy-six, and after seventeen years of proscription and exile, Juan Perón, from the Madrid suburb known as the Iron Gate, dictates peace terms to the military regime of Argentina. In 1943, as an army colonel preaching a fierce nationalism, Perón became a power in Argentina; and from 1946 to 1955, through two election victories, he ruled as dictator. His wife Eva held no official position, but she ruled with Perón until 1952. In that year she died. She was expensively embalmed, and now her corpse is with Perón at the Iron Gate.

In 1956, just one year after his overthrow by the army, Perón wrote from Panama, “My anxiety was that some clever man would have taken over.” Now, after eight presidents, six of them military men, Argentina is in a state of crisis that no Argentine can fully explain. The mighty country, as big as India and with a population of 23 million, rich in cattle and grain, Patagonian oil, and all the mineral wealth of the Andes, inexplicably drifts. Everyone is disaffected. And suddenly nearly everyone is Peronist. Not only the workers, on whom in the early days Perón showered largesse, but Marxists and even the middle-class young whose parents remember Perón as a tyrant, torturer, and thief.

The peso has gone to hell: from 5 to the dollar in 1947, to 16 in 1949, 250 in 1966, 400 in 1970, 420 in June last year, 960 in April this year, 1,100 in May. Inflation, which has been running at a steady 25 percent since the Perón days, has now jumped to 60 percent. Even the banks are offering 24 percent interest. Inflation, when it reaches this stage of take-off, is good only for the fire insurance business. Premiums rise and claims fall. When prices gallop away week by week fires somehow do not often get started.

For everyone else it is a nightmare. It is almost impossible to put together capital; and even then, if you are thinking of buying a flat, a delay of a week can cost you two or three hundred US dollars (many business people prefer to deal in dollars). Salaries, prices, the exchange rate: everyone talks money, everyone who can afford it buys dollars on the black market. And soon even the visitor is touched by the hysteria. In two months a hotel room rises from 7,000 pesos to 9,000, a tin of tobacco from 630 to 820. Money has to be changed in small amounts; the market has to be watched. The peso drops one day to 1,250 to the dollar. Is this a freak, or the beginning of a new decline? To hesitate that day was to lose: the peso bounced back to 1,100. “You begin to feel,” says Norman Thomas di Giovanni, the translator of Borges, who has come to the end of his three-year stint in Buenos Aires, “that you are spending the best years of your life at the money-changer’s. I go there some afternoons the way other people go shopping. Just to see what’s being offered.”

The blanket wage rises that the government decrees from time to time—15 percent in May, and another 15 percent promised soon—cannot keep pace with prices. “We’ve got to the stage,” the ambassador’s wife says, “when we can calculate the time between the increase in wages and the increase in prices.” People take a second job and sometimes a third. Everyone is obsessed with the need to make more money and at the same time to spend quickly. People gamble. Even in the conservative Andean town of Mendoza the casino is full; the patrons are mainly work-people, whose average monthly wage is the equivalent of $50. The queues that form all over Buenos Aires on a Thursday are of people waiting to hand in their foot-ball-pool coupons. The announcement of the pool results is a weekly national event.

A spectacular win of some 330 million pesos by a Paraguayan laborer dissipated a political crisis in mid-April. There had been riots in Mendoza, and the army had been put to flight. Then, in the following week, a guerrilla group in Buenos Aires killed the Fiat manager whom they had kidnapped ten days earlier. On the same day, in the nearby industrial town of Rosario, guerrillas ambushed and killed General Sánchez, commander of the Second Army Corps, who had some reputation as a torturer. Blood called for blood: there were elements in the armed forces that wanted then to break off the negotiations with Perón and scotch the elections promised next year. But the Paraguayan’s fortune lightened all conversation, revived optimism, and calmed nerves. The little crisis passed.

The guerrillas still raid and rob and blow up; they still occasionally kidnap and occasionally kill. The guerrillas are young and middle class. Some are Peronist, some are communist. After all the bank raids the various organizations are rich. In Córdoba last year, according to my information, a student who joined the Peronist Montoneros was paid the equivalent of $70 a month; lawyers were retained at $350. “You could detect the young Montoneros by their motocars, their aggressiveness, their flashiness. James Dean types. Very glamorous.” Another independent witness says of the guerrillas he has met in Buenos Aires: “They’re anti-American. But one of them held a high job in an American company. They have split personalities; some of them really don’t know who they are. They see themselves as a kind of comic-book hero. Clark Kent in the office by day, Superman at night, with a gun.”

Once you take a decision [the thirty-year-old woman says] you feel better. Most of my friends are for the revolution and they feel much better. But sometimes they are like children who can’t see too much of the future. The other day I went with my friend to the cinema. He is about thirty-three. We went to see Sacco and Vanzetti. At the end he said, “I feel ashamed not being a guerrillero. I feel I am an accomplice of this government, this way of life.” I said, “But you lack the violence. A guerrillero must be despejado—he mustn’t have too much imagination or sensibility. You have to do as you are told. If not, nothing comes out well. It is like a religion, a dogma.” And again he said, “Don’t you feel ashamed?”

The filmmaker says,

I think that after Marx people are very conscious of history. The decay of colonialism, the emergence of the Third World—they see themselves acting out some role in this process. This is as dangerous as having no view of history at all. It makes people very vain. They live in a kind of intellectual cocoon. Take away the jargon and the idea of revolution, and most of them would have nothing.

The guerrillas look for their inspiration to the north. From Paris of 1968 there is the dream of students and workers uniting to defeat the enemies of “the people.” The guerrillas have simplified the problems of Argentina. Like the campus and salon revolutionaries of the north, they have identified the enemy: the police. And so the social-intellectual diversions of the north are transformed, in the less intellectually stable south, into horrible reality. Dozens of policemen have been killed. And the police reply to terror with terror. They too kidnap and kill; they torture, concentrating on the genitals. A prisoner of the police jumps out of a window: La Prensa gives it a couple of inches. People are arrested and then, officially, “released”; sometimes they reappear, sometimes they don’t. A burned-out van is discovered in a street one morning. Inside there are two charred corpses: men who had been hustled out of their homes two days before. “In what kind of country are we living?” one of the widows asks. But the next day she is calmer; she retracts the accusation against the police. Someone has “visited” her.

Friends of friends bring me these stories of atrocities,” Norman di Giovanni says, “and it makes you sick. Yet no one here seems to be amazed by what’s going on.” “My wife’s cousin was a guerrillero,” the provincial businessman says at lunch. “He killed a policeman in Rosario. Then, eight months ago, he disappeared. Está muerto. He’s dead.” He has no more to say about it; and we talk of other matters.

On some evenings the jack-booted soldiers in black leather jackets patrol the pedestrian shopping street called Florida with their Alsatians: the dogs’ tails close to their legs, their shoulders hunched, their ears thrown back. The police Chevrolets prowl the neon-lit streets unceasingly. There are policemen with machine-guns everywhere. And there are the mounted police in slate-gray; and the blue-helmeted antiguerrilla motorcycle brigade; and those young men in well-cut suits who appear suddenly, plainclothesmen, jumping out of unmarked cars. Add the army’s AMX tanks and Alouette helicopters. It is an impressive apparatus, and it works.

It is as if all the energy of the state now goes into holding the state together. Law and order has become an end in itself: it is part of the Argentine sterility and waste. People are brave; they torture and are tortured; they die. But these are private events, scattered, muffled by the size of the city (Greater Buenos Aires has a population of eight million) and the size of the country, muffled by a free but inadequate press that seems incapable of detecting a pattern in the events it reports. And perhaps the press is right. Perhaps very little of what happens in Argentina is really news, because there is no movement forward; nothing is being resolved. The nation appears to be playing a game with itself; and Argentine political life is like the life of an ant community or an African forest tribe: full of events, full of crises and deaths, but life is only cyclical, and the year always ends as it begins. Even General Sánchez didn’t, by his death, provoke a crisis. He tortured in vain, he died in vain. He simply lived for fifty-three years and, high as he was, has left no trace. Events are bigger than the men. Only one man seems able to impose himself, to alter history now as he altered it in the past. And he waits at the Iron Gate.

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